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Brighton Year-Round 2020

Sam Brown A John Dowland Lute Recital

Sam Brown

Genre: Live Music, Music

Venue: Chapel Royal, North Road, Brighton


Low Down

Sam Brown plays a recital of John Dowland lute music, with one piece each by John Danyel and Peter Phillips.


Sam Brown’s a new name on the circuit. With a breathtaking technique and engaging introductions, this young lutenist made a huge impact in his debut at Brighton’s Chapel Royal. Afterwards, lutenists, composers and composer-lutenists made their way over to congratulate Brown. On this evidence, he’ll certainly return.

Brown concentrated almost exclusively on the great lute and song composer John Dowland (1563-1626) though making a welcome diversion to John Danyel (1564-1626) of whom more later, and Peter Phillips (1561-1628).

Brown’s Dowland recital began with the innocuously-entitled ‘A Fancy’ which is a mini-fantasia, a kind of riff. The way Renaissance lutenists and keyboard composers encoded some of their actual improvs entered thus freeform quasi-improvisation, with sections and a return to original material; tangy, ranging, not dependent on form. Brown’s own timbre blooms in the Chapel Royal’s acoustic.

It’s there too in ‘My Lord Willoughby’s Welcome Home’ an attractive brief and rather reflective piece, with a flourishing of melancholy as it were.

‘My Lady Hundson’s Puffe’ as its ebullient title suggests is a bit more gallant, brisker, with slightly more virtuosic ring on changes and a more conventional refrain.

‘The Right Honourable Robert, Earl of Essex, his Galliard’ is one of the most famous with its riffing on the ‘Can she excuse my wrongs?’ motifs which suggests a rather obvious link with Elizabeth I’s fraught relationship with her 1590s favourite. Its strut and flattened rising figure with its resolution is one of the most famous melodies of the period. All these brown plays with an edge of melancholic expressiveness. And re-tuning, as he says: the lute’s the most prone to go out of tune of any instrument.

John Danyel’s a recently-rediscovered composer, brother of sonnet-writer Samuel Danyel (1562-1619) and like him a fine poet too. Both courtiers – John too likely to have been educated at Oxford – they’re more on the bottom rung of courters and managed appointments more easily than the easily-slighted Dowland. Here’s John on his other art:

Like as the lute delights, or else dislikes,

As is his art that plays upon the same;

So sounds my muse, according as she strikes

On my heart strings, high-tuned unto her fame.

His ‘Mistress Anne Greene her Leaves be Greene’ is one of several complimentary gallantries in A Garden of Eloquence, one of those courtly games that conceal truths. Danyel’s a real intellectual, less moved by passionate pavanes and more on figuring out the range and scope of his art. Famously, he instructed ‘no tears’ be shed during one of his works, which was a kind of virtuosic inversion on Dowland’s ‘Lachrimaye Pavan’.

Brown relishes the much more intricate, carefully-shaded atmosphere of Danyel. It allows him to strip back expressiveness and return to a pinging clarity and temperature.

This extended work seems more intent on ranging through a journey of techniques to arrive at a language of compliments and shaded in-jokes. The point of these were to fade into the shared knowledge of composer and audience, whilst teasingly leaving the music and signal title behind. There’s a teasing brilliance in Danyel that’s almost vocal. Indeed apart from his poems and like Dowland – and Thomas Campion (1557-1619) – he set songs, though even more setting his own songs too.

Returning to a suite of John Dowland’s works we had first a brief ‘Preludium’ dark and languorous, unlike some Preludiums which like to rev up to larger fare. This is a miniature lament.

‘Robin’ is one of those ‘go tell her’ pieces originating with the Roman elegist Catullus, rediscovered in the early Renaissance and made famous by poet Robin Skelton (1460-1529) full of sexual chirpings and dyings and wanting to see what the pet robin sees when its mistress goes to bed. So there’s a mild assertiveness and gallantry in this work, less melancholy though Dowland can never take voyeurism seriously. He’s too busy lamenting he’s not the robin.

‘Semper Dowland, Semper Dolens’ is one of Dowland’s two or three signature pieces, ad his most overt manifesto. ‘Always Dowland, always doleful’ with Dowland pronounced ’Doeland’. Brown relishes the terracing sounds – indeed there’s a viol-setting of this and some other Dowland works that could take the treatment. There’s a soaring eloquence about this piece that makes it quietly thrilling.

The Frogg Galliard returns to court gallantry. The embedded song that arose from it, ‘Oh now oh now we needs must part’ enshrines Elizabeth I’s affection for one of her favourite suitors, the French Francis, Duke of Anjou, her ‘frogg’ as he called him. Dowland and Brown delight in the variations embedded in the central section that spin on to the end.

Peter Phillips was one of those composers who chose exile, like the great keyboard-player John Bull (1562-1626) who exported British keyboard playing abroad after fleeing sexual allegations. Or Dowland who went off in a huff if not puffe to serve the King of Denmark for a time.

Philips though was a Catholic, whose recusant (or Catholic reversion) activities were going to be excused less than the composers of earlier generations like Byrd who almost outlived Phillips. Famed for his church music, as well as pure keyboard works, he was also known for fashionable madrigals. His first book from 1597 was intriguingly used by Peter Breughel the Younger in his ‘Parts of Music’ where Breughel’s precise painting makes the music readable on the five stands.

His ‘Chromatick Pavan and Galliard’ is nevertheless not a dark work but a quite bouncy exercise in chromatic or coloured scales, a successor to what the continent called the British polyphonic contenance anglais – before the suppression of monasteries in the 1540s. This work is a bright virtuoso study, seemingly transposed from the keyboard to the lute.

Returning to Dowland for a final flourish it’s notable that ‘A Fantasia’ is like ‘A Fancy’ grown up. There’s several Fantasias, usually opening with a significant ping and a slow winding theme that extends the basic tripartite structure, though there’s a lot that can vey: quick central sections, or more ambling ones. The pulse of the one (I think No. 7) Brown plays is both steady and expressive with muted runs and a sense of unfolding you get in all the finest of these works, right cross the composing spectrum essentially starting with Byrd’s keyboard Fantasias. There’s an acceleration and climax that lifts the atmosphere of this recital to something quite apt. A superb debut.